Report: USDA Meat Inspection System Poor

Fecal matter and other contaminants are getting into the U.S. meat supply because the Clinton administration’s new inspection system gives industry too much control over the quality of food the government stamps with approval, a new consumer watchdog report says.

“The Jungle 2000,” — the report by the Government Accountability Project, a Washington-based public-interest law firm, and Public Citizen, a Washington-based consumer group — surveys conditions reported by 451 federal meat inspectors at 92 percent of the country’s meat-processing plants.

The groups say the inspection system — begun by the Clinton administration five years ago and called the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point program — weakens the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s authority by giving industry a larger role in monitoring safety.

Inspectors Cannot Inspect

“Our survey warns consumers that on a good day, their meat and poultry are inspected under an industry honor system, federal inspectors check paperwork, not food, and are prohibited from removing feces and other contaminants before products are stamped with the purple USDA seal of approval,” says Felicia Nestor, food safety project director with the Government Accountability Project and co-author of the 64-page report.

Under the old system, in place since 1906, government inspectors continuously inspected beef, pork and poultry during the slaughter and the processing of the product and relied on sight, touch and smell to check for animal disease or fecal matter, the groups say. In the new system, industry rather than government determines when and where inspectors are situated along the food-processing plant line, they say.

“Federal inspectors spend much less time than under the old system actually checking food and much more time checking company paperwork,” says Nestor.

In July 1999, the Government Accountability Project sent a 14-page survey with 114 questions to approximately 2,340 meat inspectors, of which 451 responded, says Nestor. The inspectors had spent an average of 18.5 years as federal meat and poultry inspectors.

Inspectors Seeing Contaminants

On one question, 210 inspectors out of 327 indicated that since the new inspection program began at their plant, there had been instances when they had not taken direct action against contamination in meat such as feces, vomit and metal shards. The inspectors said they would have taken action under the old system. And 206 of the 210 say such contamination occurs daily or weekly.

Based on the older standards, said 125 inspectors in the survey, half the current contamination would have been classified as either “certain to be adulterated, misbranded or mislabeled, certain to reach consumers and certain to have a detrimental effect upon consumers.”

“The USDA says it has a zero tolerance for fecal matter, but the survey clearly shows that such contamination is occurring,” says Wenonah Hunter, a spokeswoman for Public Citizen. “Slaughter and meat-processing lines are moving faster than ever, with as many as 400 cows an hour and over 200 birds a minute being killed. At the same time inspectors’ authority to remove feces and other contamination has been curtailed.”

While the companies may be chemically washing meat, explains Hunter, chemicals only kill the bacteria, but the meat may still contain residue of excrement.

Microbial testing of the meats also is not sufficient, Hunter says. A minimum of one chicken per 22,000 is week are tested for the dangerous E. coli 015H7; and inspectors only test a minimum of one of 300 beef carcasses per week. One of the most recent deaths due to E. coli was a New Jersey toddler who died Aug. 1 from eating tainted hamburger.

The changes in the inspection system have led to a record number of 59 meat recalls this year, Hunter says. “The government can say that they have caught the problem, but they should be preventing these recalls from happening in the first place.”

Industry: Report Based on Anecdote

Both the USDA and the meat industry challenged the survey’s accuracy and methodology.

“The report is based on anecdote, but the scientific evidence shows that … since 1996, when the meat inspection program was modernized, food-borne illnesses have been decreasing and bacterial contamination of meat and poultry has been declining,” says Sara Lilygren a spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute, a trade organization that represents 70 percent of the beef, pork, lamb, veal and turkey processors in the United States.

“All the evidence points to a safer meat and poultry supply and consumers should feel reassured,” she said.

Thomas Billy, administrator for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, cited a March 17 article in the Centers for Disease Control’s periodical indicating a reduction in food-borne illness that coincided with the new inspection system.

Billy also questioned the sampling used in designing the report, noting that there are 8,700 meat inspectors in the country but less than half had been sent the survey. “It is not scientific but rather a collection of self-selected anecdotes, ” hey says.

Billy says the new inspection system gives inspectors more teeth in ensuring the safety of the food supply. In the past, they would remove products from the processing line, but now they can document a system failure that may be the basis for shutting down a plant.

Recalls, both say, are increasing because more testing is being done. “If you look for things you will find them,” Lilygren says.